Dante found a recruiter who was looking for people to teach ESL in various locations around the world. He originally had a job lined up teaching English in South Korea but the paperwork fell through. Then a job came along in Saudi Arabia. The pay was more than in the South Korea and the paperwork could be processed quickly. Within a week, Dante was on his way to Saudi Arabia to teach English for a year. When he arrived he was confronted with a culture that did not allow him to talk to women, forbid him to sit in the married area of a restaurant and would imprison him for drinking alcohol.
Dante made it through the first year and decided the money and even his social life there were too good to pass up. He signed up for another year.
Here is a bit of his story.
You get a two month vacation every year?!
Yes. It is quite nice to get out of the country a little bit because it drove me a little insane. Normally it is one month but I had the choice to take two.
Is this vacation paid?
Normally, when you take vacation at the end of the contract, it’s paid. Since I took two [months], one was paid, the other was not.
What drives you crazy about living in Saudi Arabia?
I am used to America where I could do what I want where I wanted. I could talk to women in public. I could eat bacon and sausage. In Saudi Arabia you do not have those freedoms.
You cannot talk to women in public in Saudi Arabia?
Is that because you are a male foreigner?
In Saudi Arabia men cannot talk to women in public unless they are related to or married to the woman they are speaking to.
Does that extend to if you are in a store and you need to ask someone, ‘Hey, where are the potatoes?’ Are you allowed to do that?
Women do not work in the stores. The only time I have been in that kind of contact is when I went to the medical clinic. You even see men working in women’s retail stores.
What is the cost of living in Saudi Arabia?
It is dirt cheap. I get a monthly salary of 3000 [US] dollars a month. I would have a hard time going through all of that money here. I have a hard time getting through 1000 dollars a month.
I am guessing you can save a lot of money.
What would a one bedroom apartment cost?
I would not know. I live there rent free.
How did you manage to live free?
If you are a foreigner coming over a lot of the times they pay for your apartment or give you a monthly stipend.
Are you living with other foreigners?
Yes. I live with a South African.
What do groceries cost in Saudi Arabia?
It would be about 100 to 125 American dollars for a week or two of groceries. If I am eating out a lot it is about 150 dollars a week for food.
If you live for free and food is about 300 to 600 dollars a month. What are your other expenses?
Other expenses can add up if I go in taxis, eat out more than I should and buy expensive things I don’t need. I am also paying off my college loans and I am funding future websites.
What recommendations do you have for foreigners who are looking to get jobs in Saudi Arabia?
You have to take everything in stride. A lot of things about Saudi Arabia can make people go looney. It is about keeping calm, not stressing out and going with the flow.
Are there other examples of things that make you go looney other than not being able to talk to women in public?
In Saudi Arabia there is the expat public life and then there is the secret underground life of drinking and partying.
What would happen if you got caught drinking in Saudi Arabia?
You would get sent to jail.
So, where do you go when drinking?
Some of the compounds around in the area.
Do you know anyone that has gone to jail for drinking in Saudi Arabia?
Not for drinking. I did almost get arrested for sitting in the wrong section once.
There is a single male section and the family section in restaurants and such. When you are single you have to sit in the single section when you are eating and doing things of that nature. If you sit in the family section you can get in a lot of trouble for that.
How did you get out of getting arrested?
I was able to talk myself out of it.
What happens when you get arrested?
You get taken to a holding cell and the only way to get out is to have your sponsor come get you. If your sponsor wants to leave you for a few days they can.
Who is your sponsor?
The company you work for.
Do you have any recommendations for websites, resources or companies that are hiring foreigners?
I got lucky with my job because I did not have to look for it. They found me. For websites there are Dave’s ESL Cafe and SeriousTeachers.com. They can provide a good start for ESL teachers.
Did you need to have any special qualifications to teach English in Saudi Arabia?
You need a bachelor’s degree and ESL certifications.
Would they hire foreign women to teach English in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, there are foreign women here teaching English. Some like it and some do not.
How do you think a foreign woman’s experience is different than yours?
Women have it 10 times worse than me.
In what ways?
They can’t drive. A lot of them men here try to touch foreign women. I have heard a lot of stories of that happening.
Are there a lot of jobs for foreigners?
Plenty. Saudi Arabia is still going through the transformation from developing country to economical power. They are trying to develop their financial districts. They are trying to get a lot of outside help from foreigners.
How did you get your Saudi Arabian work visa?
It was about 200 dollars and within a week I got my visa which meant I was legal in the country for 90 days and they can renew it indefinitely.
Did you have to get that on your own or did the company you work for do it for you?
I got it on my own by working with a visa processing agency. Normally, when it comes to jobs in Saudi Arabia, people get an iqama. I’m on a work visit visa, so it was easy to process.
And you are going to do this for another year?
Yes, unfortunately. I will be able to save a lot of money and be debt free as long as I can hang on until the end of the year. My social life is not so bad there. I joke with my friends that I am not supposed to find alcohol or women and I have found both.
I am guessing that Saudi women with foreigners is something that is generally not approved of.
It is not very approved of. They are quite protective of their women.
What about differences in work culture between the US and Saudi Arabia?
It can be quite similar, but it can still be frustrating. I would probably prefer working in America. I do think the US it is more organized. Where I work in Saudi Arabia they change their minds on a weekly basis and they are not very efficient with what they want to do with their curriculum. The students kind of run the asylum and have a bit more power than the teachers.
What is the biggest hurdle of living in Saudi Arabia?
Adjusting to the culture. Everything shuts down during the prayers. There are a lot of friendly Saudis, but the particular freedoms you are used to are not there and it can be a bit depressing. I was very accustomed to freedoms that are not in Saudi Arabia. If you are Muslim it can be a great place. The society is based off the Koran. Living in Saudi Arabia would be easier for people who have been raised with those beliefs.
What would you miss if you were no longer there?
Sometimes I go walking in the desert on the outskirts of Riyadh and there are some really beautiful places there. There is nothing like it. It is breathtaking. Another thing would be the social life I have gained there. I have been able to hang out in embassies and attempt to flirt with the princess — unsuccessfully.
Is Saudi Arabia a relatively safe place?
I feel safer in Saudi Arabia than I ever did in America unless you are talking about driving there — then I have never been so scared in my life.
Why is driving so scary?
You will see cars cross four or five lanes of traffic within an instant. I think Saudi Arabia is the number one or number two country for traffic fatalities. Traffic is nuts. I refuse to drive.
What about health insurance?
I get covered by my company. It is health insurance and I will take that.
How do you communicate with people at home?
Facebook and Skype.
How do you meet people?
Through people I work with. I met a guy who works at the American Embassy and I have met people through him. There are a lot of other people who just sit in their apartment and wait for the year to be over. I have seen people leave within the first month that they got there.
I have heard a lot about expats in Saudi Arabia living in compounds. What does that mean?
A compound is secured by Saudi military. You will see military guards at the front and inside of the compound. Sometimes they will have giant machine guns in case someone tries to attack the foreigners. I know one of the compounds was attacked a couple of days before I left. It is one of the ways you can be inside Saudi Arabia, but still do all of the things you are used to doing at home without being controlled by the rules of Saudi Arabia.
Do you live in a compound?
No, I don’t.
You can drink inside the compound?
Yes. Some compounds sell alcohol inside.
What is the dress code in Saudi Arabia?
For men you can get away with whatever you want. I think the only thing they frown upon is wearing shorts, but even then I do not think it is much of a problem. With women it is different. They have to wear a black robe that covers their whole body.
Foreigner women have to wear that as well?
Yes, all women have to wear it. The only time they do not have to wear it is in private. Saudi women also have to wear a head covering and sometimes the police try to make the foreign women wear a head covering as well.
I imagine you made a few cultural mistakes along the way?
Once I served someone a plate of food with my left hand and the guy shoved my hand away. It is because the left hand is considered unclean as it is used for cleaning yourself in the toilet. There are also squatting toilets that Westerners have to get used to.
I wonder what Saudis would think of me being left handed.
You could never hand them anything with your left hand because they think you have been wiping your butt with it. There are definitely a lot of cultural things that you pick up along on the way.
How have you done with language?
I know a few words and phrases I have learned from students. I did not know any Arabic when I arrived and I still barely know any, but with a few words and phrases the barrier has started breaking down. You will find a good range of people who know English.
How long do you think you will be able to do it?
It depends on how much I can take and my current relationship. I know Burma is opening up with ESL opportunities. Iraq is too. There is always Japan and South Korea.
Do you have any idea how ESL teaching salaries in Saudi Arabia compare to ESL salaries around the world?
Saudi Arabia is one of the highest if not the highest in the world. Egypt pays less, maybe half of what I am making. The same with China and Thailand. South Korea is very popular because the cost of living is cheap and you make maybe 2200 dollars a month.
I am assuming that is cash. They do not take out taxes of the 3000 dollars?
That is one of the benefits of working in Saudi. They do not take out taxes.
That is serious cash when you are living for free and food is a few hundred dollars a month.
That is one of the only reasons I do not mind going back.
When you say you are working for a year it is actually 10 months?
Yes. This year I will be working 10 or 11 months. It will likely be 10 months, so I can unwind from all of that stress.
Do you have any recommendations on companies people can look into if interested in teaching in Saudi Arabia?
If you can find some of the private contractors it will be a lot better because you can get the compound freedoms.
Anything else you would like to add?
Don’t get arrested. Most importantly, just take everything in stride.
More about Dante at: http://www.facebook.com/YourOneTrueHero\
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